Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Does your smoke alarm work in your house? If so, will you wake up when it goes off?

Recently 7 university students were killed in a house fire in North Carolina. Media reports indicate that the smoke alarms were operational. Why did so many die in this tragedy when the most important household life-safety feature is working the way it was designed?

I just completed my tour of duty in Washington DC at the 2007 Solar Decathlon. This is a competition comprised of 20 university teams who build 800 square foot fully solar powered houses that are brought to the National Mall to compete against each other. I serve as the building official. During the final days of set-up, I conducted some early morning inspections to ensure, among other things, that the smoke alarms were working. Prior to coming to Washington DC, I had heard anecdotes that younger adults were not responding to the alarm signals made by typical household fire/smoke alarms. I had not seen any formal studies indicating an issue, so chose to conduct a little in situ testing.

I arrived at the UMD house and found a number of students sleeping on the floor. Seeing my opportunity, I triggered the test button and started the alarm. Despite the screaming siren, nobody stirred! The photo to the left shows the aftermath. This woman didn't even twitch.
I might mention that these students had been working pretty long hours getting their houses assembled in time to meet some deadlines. Many had done one or more "all-nighters". They were all pretty tired. However, you would think that the sound of the alarm would at least cause some movement. It is now beginning to look like the anecdotes might have some validity.
Why buy Select Comfort when you can get bubble wrap for free? You probably have guessed it by now. This gentleman is sleeping soundly as I take his photo from some scaffolding as the smoke alarm blazes away in the background. He didn't wake up either.
So why aren't we responding to alarms the way we used to? I have a couple of theories. We have become so accustomed to loud noises and multi-tasking, we no longer hear everything we are supposed to hear. Just ask my wife.
If you can text on your cellphone while blasting hip hop on your car stereo in rush hour traffic, you are part of the new generation. Add that to sleep deprivation, prescription sleep aids, alcohol, alternative inebriates, and the like and you have makings for very sound sleep. So sound, you will sleep through any alarm and fire that ensues.
Fortunately residential fire deaths in America are on the decline. The biggest cited reason was the mandatory installation of residential smoke detectors for new construction starting in 1970's. Up until recently, there was no reason to question their efficacy. Now I wonder how many of the residual 2700 deaths per year are caused in households with working alarms and individuals who are not responding to them?
It appears that the North Carolina tragedy may be indicative of a rather disconcerting trend. Hopefully the individuals serving on NFPA 72, the fire alarm standards committee, will come up with some new sounding methods (voice commands) to ensure that people respond. Here is an interesting video showing the phenomenom for younger kids to give you some options.
In the meantime, if an alarms sounds in your house, make sure that everyone is awake and heading out of the door. Don't assume that just because you are awake, everyone else is also.

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